On 26 May, 2016, the House of Commons Northern Ireland Committee published its extensive report on Northern Ireland and the EU referendum.
The Committee’s remit is to examine the work of the Northern Ireland Office and matters within the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It has thirteen members (5 Conservative; 3 Labour; 2 DUP; I SDLP; 1 UUP; 1 Independent), and is chaired by the Conservative MP, Laurence Robertson. Among the Committee members are the Vote Leave leader, Labour’s Kate Hoey; the former SDLP leader, Alasdair McDonnell; Ian Paisley Jnr and the Independent MP, Lady Hermon. The Committee is divided on the referendum question, with seven backing Leave and six on the Remain side
The Committee took oral and written evidence, in London and Belfast, from forty individuals and representatives of political parties, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, business and farming organisations, academic experts and researchers. The Committee visited the EU institutions in Brussels for discussions. The Irish Ambassador in London, HE Dan Mulhall, addressed the Committee, Presentations were made by the IIEA Director General, Tom Arnold, and John McGrane, Director General, British Irish Chamber of Commerce and member of the Institute’s UK Group. The Institute furthermore made a written submission to the inquiry.
The UK Government position was presented by Ben Wallace MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office. The Committee report comments: “It would not have been useful to take oral evidence from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Rt. Hon. Theresa Villiers MP, who is campaigning for the UK to leave the EU, as she would have had to simply state the Government’s position rather than have been free to give us her own views.”
The introductory chapter of the report comments that “it does seem as if the debate in Northern Ireland has lacked the intensity that party politics in Westminster has given it. Power-sharing between parties with differing views has meant the Northern Ireland Executive has not been able to articulate a clear position around which debate can focus.” This situation is contrasted with the level of attention in the Republic to the possible consequences of a Brexit south of the border.
The report stresses that, for good reasons, Northern Ireland warrants special attention in the EU referendum. It is the UK region most dependent on EU trade and, should the UK vote to leave, it will be the only part of the UK with a land border with an EU Member State. Northern Ireland’s exposure to the EU arises directly from its relationship with the Republic of Ireland. “The ability of farmers and companies to do business across the border and for continued cooperation between governments in a range of areas, including trade promotion and policing, in the event that the UK leaves the EU, are fundamental to the potential impact on Northern Ireland.”
The report argues that the sort of post-Brexit trading relationship which the UK might negotiate with the EU must be ascertained before an evaluation of the likely impact of leaving the EU can be made. For many people, this will be the main question that will determine which way they decide to vote. That relationship will be the product of a negotiation process between the UK and the EU 27. A critical element will be the extent of Single Market access for UK firms and the required degree of regulatory compliance. “One of the most important questions in the minds of many remains unanswered and votes will be cast on the perception of risk and the balance of probability.”
The Committee insists that Northern Ireland’s economic priorities, such as gaining a good deal for agricultural and manufactured goods, must be given due prominence by the UK Government in any subsequent negotiations. Agreeing a free trade deal that includes agriculture would need to be a priority since, without support, much of Northern Ireland’s agriculture would be unviable. In the event of a vote to leave the EU, a new system of agricultural support should be high on the negotiating agenda. However, the report concedes that the likelihood of this cannot be guaranteed.
The future of the border in the event of a Brexit was given as one of the main concerns by some witnesses. Those from the Republic were unhappy at the prospect that free movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic might become more difficult and that a Brexit might lead to a “hardening” of the present open border, described by Ambassador Mulhall as the biggest symbol, perhaps, of the normality and development of north-south relations.”
The Committee notes suggestions that the border might well be hardened in the event of a vote to leave, referring to comments by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who has said that Ireland could reinstate border controls in the event of a Brexit. The UK and the Republic have maintained a joint Common Travel Area (CTA) since the 1920s. “Some would argue that the current arrangements work well and there is no desire to change them. However, in the event of a Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would become an external border for the EU and so would principally be a matter of negotiation between the UK and EU.”
Should there be no agreement on free movement between the UK and EU as part of the exit negotiations, three scenarios arise: the border could be hardened; the UK could instead harden the border between the island of Ireland and Great Britain; or the Republic of Ireland could opt to enforce the same approach to border controls as the UK. The UUP witnesses told the Committee that they had been told by the Government that it did not envisage policing the border with the Republic and that the preferred solution would be to put in place a more robust system of checks at relevant ports and airports on the mainland.
The Committee’s view is that an arrangement that maintains a soft land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic but which does not see restrictions imposed on travel within the UK would need to be a priority.
The report points to the fact that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement itself makes reference to shared EU membership, stating that both governments wish “to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union”. The Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 state the legislative scope of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive is limited to that which is compliant with European law.
It was suggested to the Committee that leaving the EU might make the operation of the North South Ministerial Council more complicated. The NSMC was established to foster cooperation between the NI Executive and the Dublin Government on all-Ireland and cross-border issues. If, after Brexit, UK policy diverged significantly from the EU’s in key areas, it could make cross-border collaboration more difficult to achieve. However, the Committee argues that “….it is clear that the relationships that both the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government have with the Irish Government continue to be very strong, and we expect that would continue to be the case regardless of the outcome of the referendum.”